Civilizations without Boats

a heterogeography of Chauvin, Louisiana

research proposal, Spring 2014, Institute of the Liberal Arts, Emory University

These are the facts of Chauvin, Louisiana: a small, coastal town, populated by refugees from the Acadian diaspora; a place where men are trawlers, roustabouts, and roughnecks, and the women wives, cashiers; a hurricane disaster plain; shore-zero for oil spills; a French community that morphed into an illiterate American one; a repository for the old songs, two-steps, and trickster tales from a beautiful, impossible past; a population uneducated on behalf of the state, a still-spooky Catholicism, and technological maladjustment. And yet, facts are not enough.

This project intends to map the impossible places in Chauvin. Foucault used the term “heterotopia” to mean micro-utopia that collapse time, space, official narratives, bodily intensity, and imagination. He called the boat “a heterotopia par excellence.”1 As the story goes, each year during the blessing of the fleet, there are fewer boats than before. One can point to this as evidence of a decline: people are abandoning traditional culture and labor, assimilating, selling out. And yet, perhaps in a civilization without boats, the imaginative energy that burrows out a heterotopia finds its expression elsewhere: in unfixed moments when, briefly, some fantasy might corral a few people together, create an intensity for a single person: on the fairgrounds where people listen to a Cajun French heavy metal band, eating jambalaya by the fistful; the tour of an Our Lady of Fatima statue in living rooms; the outlaw poker run for charity that turns into a fishing trip; the outsider grad student lurking in the library, hoping someone old might talk to her.

I want to study these people’s imaginative lives in order to understand how the people of a small, precarious town imagine themselves as belonging to something, how they manage paradoxical fantasies and stories, what populates their dreams and where it comes from. I want to understand how they might intervene in their own mythmaking.

Marty J's Gas Station

Here’s a busted up gas station in Chauvin called the Marty J’s.

lies our parents told us

in which we position ourselves between stories

This is a story History2 tells us: Acadians, a gentle folk in concupiscent hills, loyal to God before king, were uprooted and deranged by the British in 1775. Half died at sea. The bulk went back to France, where they lived in sea-ghettos in Nantes and Rochelle, waiting for the next boat to arrive. Under Spanish rule, immigrants to Louisiana could cash in on land grants, and a bunch of Acadians, many now intermarried with the continental French, left again for America. These became Cajun. They became again a gentle folk in concupiscent alluvial plains and marshes and swamps, loyal to God before state, until Uncle Sam forced them all to watch TV and speak English.

This is a story Cultural Studies3 tells us: Cajuns, economically disadvantaged due to linguistic maladaptation and cultural inclusivity remained a minority class in Louisiana until the oil industry made them all middle-class cowboys. Traditional work such as trapping, fishing, and farming gave way to industrial labor. This transition coincided with the rise of mass communications in the years after World War II, an event that exposed the Louisiana French to a broader world. Critical theory4 tells us Cajuns became dupes: of the culture-machine, of the industries that colonized their land, of a government that demanded their acquiescence to democracy and capitalism. They perceived themselves as dispossessed and underprivileged but barely whimpered when the community leaders bungled attempt after attempt to reintroduce French language and folk culture. Today, they are pawns in the claws of industry and state players, placated by a tourism economy and the spectacle of difference. But then again, who isn’t? Cajuns are just like other middle-class groups in America, only perhaps more obvious in their nostalgia.

This is the story Folklore5 tells us: Cajuns don’t read, but they’re cagy. They subsist off the words old people say. They are different from any group in America. They possess a knowledge that needs to be carried on, a knowledge that is a birthright, scrawled in blood and DNA. They speak. This is how knowledge—which is not only knowledge but wisdom—transfers from generation to generation. Wisdom: how to do things the right way for the right reasons. For culture, this means doing is a type of pedagogy, a way to teach children how to be Cajuns. How to peel crawfish and shrimp. How to eviscerate a crab. How to cut thistle from an overgrown lot at just the right time to make a salad with the tender stalks. A Cajun needs to know how to harvest the knowledge from the community, know which elder knows how to tie knots useful for trawling, which ones knows how to heal maladies, which ones knows how to speak the right language. A Cajun must enjoy music made with accordions, fiddles, washboards. A Cajun must eschew the influence of the sitcom, the hiphop joint, the animated gif. A Cajun must live in the world but be separate from it. A Cajun must be wrought of mud and floodwater and gumbo and muscadine wine and boats. A Cajun must have a nautical imagination.

This is the story Politics tells us: Louisiana is an odd state. It is the only state in the U.S. to derive its law from the French Civil Code rather than British Common Law. In the 1930s, it was ruled by the Kingfish, Huey Long, who was more or less a communist. Cajuns learned to read through Long’s programs, entering the arena of American politics. The people of Chauvin tended toward the Democratic party, voting in line with other groups of immigrant Catholics. Then they met the Bible-belt, liked what they saw, and became socially conservative. They support Big Oil, even after the 2010 oil spill took everyone’s jobs. Populism is always good politics, appealing to a folkloric yearning for a precritical ethos where everyone performs heritage roles in a democratic economy.

This is the story Arts tells us: Louisiana has a special connection to art and music. This probably has to do with the strength of a fantastic history: the memorialization of the deportation for Cajuns, the horror of slavery, the hope of the redemptory community of free blacks, the threat of extinction each storm season, the culture of evacuation, the derelict aesthetics of Old South nobility meets urban density, the crazy reptiles that skulk and swim, the tension between Catholic spookiness and Voodoo spookier-ness, the cities of the dead where bodies rot in marble singles, duplexes, and mausoleums, the draw of the Gulf munching away at the coast, the enigmatic names of waterways (Bayou Go-to-Hell, Petit Mamou, etc), the strange, Gambian/French/Chitimacha/Spanish/Chocktaw/German/Cameroonian/Portugese/Haitian/Italian/Mi’maquian mélange that constitutes local cuisine, the literature that reiterates the sublime properties of the swamps, the relationship between 19th century Louisiana and the Parisian salons whose members vacationed in the former colony, and vampires.

These are stories and conversations that undergird the stories we might tell next. As Trinh T. Minh-ha writes: “When asked why they write, writers usually answer that they do so to create a world their own, make order out of chaos, heighten their awareness of life, transcend their existences, discover themselves, communicate their feelings, or speak to others.”6 Telling stories, repeating them, is a way to write something, a history, into a shared imaginative space, which flickers in and out of material spaces, encroaches upon them, shapes them. In Chauvin, as elsewhere, there is a mythology of culture, a genealogy of the forms social interaction might take. The page of Chauvin, Louisiana, is well scribbled with stories, slick with polished carbon and iron gall. And yet, it is still possible to draw over the deep etches made by pens. I situate my project in the in-between of stories and scholarly conversations about imagination and culture. I want to see what has been written there that no one has yet read.

Foucault ends his lecture on heterotopia with this: “Civilizations without boats are like children whose parents have no bed upon which they can play; their dreams dry up, espionage replaces adventure, and the ugliness of police effaces the bright beauty of pirates.” I want to find the boats in Chauvin—the ones that are literal, the ones that are not, and the ones yet to come. I want to chart what Lauren Berlant calls “what manages the ambivalence and itinerancy of attachment.”7 I seek out the nonce genres of cultural experience, geographical attachment, and world-making.

new adventures in ethnography

in which I figure out how to do things

This project will analyze the stories that structure the lives of people in Chauvin. It will be an ethnography and an analysis of popular, scholarly, and local texts and activities and events. It will excavate material from archives, trying to hear more clearly what Foucault called “the dull sound beneath history, the obstinate murmur of a language talking to itself.”8 My fieldwork will span two years: first interviewing subjects and identifying materials, reading texts and culling murmurs from official and personal archives, and interviewing and living with my subjects more.

I turn to disparate fields for models: the ethnographic work of Trinh T. Minh-ha (Woman, Native, Other, Surname Viet Given Name Nam), the lyric scholarship and poetry of Ann Carson (Decreation, Eros the Bittersweet), the fiction of Junot Diaz (The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), the genealogies of Michel Foucault (History of Madness), the interdisciplinary sociology of Avery Gordon (Ghostly Matters), the thick descriptions of Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures), pop culture excavations of Michael Moon (A Small Boy and Others, Darger’s Resources). Each of these works stretches and sometimes blazes through the limits of their disciplines. What they share is an ability to pull from diverse archives to tell new, rich stories.

Following Trinh and Geertz, I will be both suspicious of and generous with the testimony of my subjects, attempting to bypass, or at least play with, the “objectivity” of documentary ethnography. I will try to amplify unheard voices, clarify hazy dreams, but I hope that my work will never be a fixed representation of these voices, these dreams, that it never treats the people it studies as anything less than something excessive and inassimilable. I hope that my writing will contain a multiplicity of voices, all partners in still more multiple conversations.

Following Moon, Gordon, and Foucault, I will identify the binds discourse has on people. I will use close reading to open rifts in stories, to challenge my interviews, to trace a shifty history of the present that invents realities for the people I study. It is my heterotopian hope that my writing can somehow be an excellent thought experiment that invites readers to wonder and to take apart the webs of imagination and culture and society that might, invisibly, be as potent as what one might consider reality.

Following Carson and Diaz my work will ultimately be a creative act, offering an aesthetic mode of thinking about a certain place, a certain people. Carson’s essays, using a logic of parataxis, affect, and repetition, are interpretations that are not quite arguing, not quite not-arguing. Diaz’s fiction is a erudite history of political trauma, yet is packaged as a wacky, compelling story of immigration and creolization. Such works challenge the site of the scholarly text as the only or best place to do the kinds of work scholarship does: critique, challenge, analyze, and interpret. To study the imaginative lives of people requires a use of language that is not bound to proving or capturing. My work will instead play with my materials, suggesting multiple worlds of discourse, channeling the flows and repetitions I encounter in the field and archive.

bad son

an autogenealogy

I went to New Orleans for college—a place that seemed like the best prospect to begin life as a writer, one whose cost of living could be mitigated by its proximity to my family. I lived halfway in a Chauvin aesthetic while distancing myself from it: working offshore during the summers, integrating into a group of writers during the school year. One summer, after returning from a fourteen-day hitch in the Gulf of Mexico, I left for a poetry fellowship at Bucknell University. This change—from twelve-hour days of manual labor to a life of creativity, glibness, and friendships based on mutual interest—allowed me to recognize an impossibility about my life, and I quit my job in offshore oil immediately. Later that summer, the deluges of 2005.

I became interested in Louisiana under evacuation to Chicago, watching my hometown flooded on national television. In the sullen ruins of New Orleans, I began researching Louisiana in earnest: collecting books, helping a professor restore his moldy New Orleans research, learning the “Cajun” arts (dancing, cooking, speaking French, playing accordion, telling jokes). I preemptively evacuated to Paris in a French-language immersion program. While there, I found the traces my family left in Nantes in the eighteenth century. I also applied for a Fulbright grant to write poems in Acadie.

I was in a romantic frame of mind when I moved into a student apartment near Université de Moncton. The weird urban culture of contemporary Acadians jolted me out of my passéisme, making me suspicious of my own rigid definitions of cultural boundaries. While there, I took classes in folklore, linguistics, Acadian literature, and translation. I also wrote a lot of poems.

My vocation has always been to write, and though I undertook a massive research project in Canada, the next step for me was always to enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing. I started at Cornell the next year. My experience as a writer—both alone in Canada and in the workshop at Cornell—shapes my project deeply: I know the small things words do, actions that erase themselves. I’ve struggled with the problem of representation, what kinds of cruelties result from it. I’ve also experimented with different forms, ones whose rhetoric might offer something different than a capturing in words of a people. One of the research questions that incites this project is how is it possible to study and communicate the ephemeral performances of life without killing them or, worse, having them stand in for people. Without being a poet, I would not be able to do justice to this question.

Cornell trained me well in the discourses of the literary-inflected humanities: critical, queer, and postcolonial theories, deconstruction, trauma, psychoanalysis. This study continued at Emory University. The most influential courses for my thinking on this project have been on postcolonial theory, Foucault, queer theory, aesthetics, experimental scholarship, digital humanities, and human geography. I also work with scholarship in Southern Studies, a branch of American Studies, through my work as an editorial assistant for Southern Spaces.

I never fully left Chauvin. I cofounded a nonprofit there in 2009: T-Possibility, which has held an annual festival for four years now and is building a cultural center dedicated to facilitating creative and cultural work in Chauvin. I still read and speak French, including Cajun and Chiac dialects. I know how to be outside, drive a boat, trawl, hunt, peel a shrimp, lay flooring, gut houses, boil crawfish, ride a motorcycle, and relate to people who don’t spend their days reading hard books. I know the people, archives, and popular stories of Chauvin—I’m part of it.

In 2013, I returned to Chauvin to begin fieldwork. I had a serendipitous meeting with a grad student, Lindsey Feldman, from University of Arizona, who was doing work for the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology. She taught me how to do interviews, keep paperwork, seek interesting leads, and have fun doing ethnographies. I helped her meet people, find a place, to stay, and understand the contexts of the people she interviewed. That trip to the field has well prepared me to return and has given me a better understanding of how to do an ethnographic project on emergent, indefinable imaginative actions that comprise and contradict culture.

why we fight

the point of this project

This project asks: How do people negotiate the imaginary landscapes that constitute their lives? How does one belong to a culture? How do people imagine themselves in concert with other people, withstanding storm and oil, mass media and old-timey wisdom, poverty and industrialization? What do people fantasize about anyway?

This project tries to make sense of imagination and its shadow, reality. Civilizations without Boats explores how imagination incarnates without reducing the heterogeneity of the people or place that brings it forth, what role external forces play in the small-town imaginarium, and how people deal with the magic of being connected to something even as they construct and are constructed by regimes of institutional fantasy. Maybe, along the way, we might understand what is important about cultures, communities, and imaginations and how these things come to be—information crucial to people withstanding effacement from without (ecological disaster) or from within (apathy), and to people who might intervene in culture through art or activism.

Maybe it is possible to salvage enunciations written into obscurity, ones whispered too softly to hear, remixing them into a fiction that might disrupt the terrible trajectory of belief and reification. This hope (for something like creativity) is important, because as the stories become fixtures in living imaginations, they become restraints. They become levees that demarcate whose house will survive a flood and whose house is left with a foot of mud, soggy mattresses, and drooping ceiling fans. They become membership cards that exclude, limit, and oppress people. Stories, once stone, can break arms. In Chauvin, the fate of selling the spectacle of heritage is as naturalized as working to survive in the United States. Writing over, scratching out, filling-in, and subverting the terms of this belief has the potential to disrupt this slow march towards capitulating to the powers-that-be who demand certain people accept the fate of being the dumping ground for America’s industrial shit, who say that a person born in Chauvin must either accept assimilation into a vague Americana or embrace a folkloric identity.

  1. Michel Foucault, “Les hétérotopies,” (French Radio Feature, 1966). []
  2. See scholars such as Carl Brasseaux, Ryan Brasseux, and Shane Bernard. []
  3. In addition to Shane Bernard, see Charles Stivale, the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (University of Arizona): Gulf Oil Project. []
  4. See Theodor Adorno, Stewart Hall, the rest of the Frankfurt School. []
  5. The primary discipline of Louisiana scholars from the 1970s until recently, presided over by Barry Jean Ancelet. []
  6. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other,  (Bloomington: Indiana, 1989), 21. []
  7. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke, 2011), 122. []
  8. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (New York City: Routledge, 2006), 529. []

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